“Your mama say to help you,” I say. “And she my boss. So I be helping you.”
“Well, I’m your boss too, right?”
Bobby raise up his eyebrows at me, but sister, I ain’t moving. Miz Corliss gone yell at me if I don’t help her boy.
“Fine,” Bobby say. “Stay. But I’m going to unpack myself. You can keep me company.”
“Okay,” I say. But I don’t dare sit down. Just in case Miz Corliss come bursting in.
“How’s your mother?” Bobby ask me.
He got this fond tone in his voice when he ask about Mama. I like that. “She good,” I tell him.
“Did she get my letters?”
About every six months when Bobby was at war, we got ourselves a letter from a Mr. Robert Corliss. Mama, she got so excited when she see the letters. She’d cry out, “Bobby! He all right!” Now Mama don’t read so good, but I helped her and we read each letter start to end. In each one, he asked about me too. Just being polite, I know.
“Yes, she did, Mister Bobby.”
“Bobby,” he say firmly.
“Yes, sir.” Oh Lord, how am I going to get away with calling him that? Don’t he know he just making it harder for me?
I watch him as he pull out a few pair of his pants. They all got the long legs, not cut off and pinned like his pants are now. Trying to make myself useful, I say, “You want me to sew up all your pants legs for you?”
Bobby look down at the pants in his hands. “No. Uh, not… yet.” Except I don’t know what he waiting for. Legs ain’t gone grow back, like I said.
I sit on his bed, just waiting for him to finish packing. My eyes go back to that there bookcase, and Bobby sees me looking. He get this funny look on his face. “You read most of those, didn’t you?” he ask.
I lower my eyes. “I don’t know what you’s talkin’ about.”
I don’t look at him. He might know our secret, but Mama say it’s nothing we could ever talk about. If Miz Corliss find out, we be in big trouble. Not Bobby, but Mama and me. I need this job.
Thank the Lord, Bobby don’t mention them books again.
After he got most of his clothes put away, Bobby tell me he got to use the bathroom. The den has an attached bathroom, but I can see straight away that his big ol’ wheelchair ain’t gone fit through the door. He gives in a try, one, two, three times. He ain’t gone make it. I could’ve told him that from the get-go.
“Damn,” Bobby say, wiping his hair from his face.
“I fetch you a jug from the kitchen,” I say, relieved to finally be able to make myself useful.
But I make it to the kitchen and rummage through the cabinets, looking for an old cup that Bobby can use as a pee-jug. I find this chipped ceramic cup that Miz Corliss don’t ever use no more, and I bring it to Bobby. He don’t look happy, but he pees in the pee-jug while I step out, and then I come back and go empty it in the toilet.
“We’re going to fix this,” Bobby say. “I’m not having you help me every time I need to use the bathroom.”
“That’s my job,” I say.
“It ain’t your job,” Bobby say, and now he got his face all screwed up like he real upset. “I don’t know what my mother told you, but I’m not helpless. I’m gonna do everything myself, and no offense, Rosie, but I just don’t need you.”
“I understand, sir,” I say.
“Rosie,” Bobby start up, but then he just up and give up.
Another place it turn out Bobby’s wheelchair just plum don’t fit is in the kitchen. He don’t mind that so much, and I’m guessing he don’t spend much time in the kitchen, nohow. He got to ask me to get him a glass of water, but he’d probably be asking for that anyways as the glasses is on the top cupboard.
As I’m cooking dinner for the Corliss family, I hears Bobby calling to me from the door of the kitchen. “Rosie,” he say. “I need you.”
I’ve got two pots going on the stove and I don’t want to leave them, but I can’t go saying no to Bobby, so I ask, “What you need?”
Bobby, his handsome face turn the color a Mama’s beets. “I need to use the bathroom, Rosie. You know, not for peeing.”
“Oh!” I lower the heat on my pots and wipe my hands on my apron. I don’t know what we’s gone do. You can’t make a poop-jug. I got to get Bobby on that toilet.
I follow him to his bedroom and he makes it as far as he can, to the edge of the bathroom. I eye his body. I reckon without his legs, he ain’t gone be so heavy as most grown men. “I can try to lift you,” I say.
Bobby nods. He adjust hisself in his chair and I come ‘round to face him. He reaches out and grabs me ‘round the neck. When he’s up in the air, I feel his right stump poking into me, then the left. They seem to be flailing. Like I ‘spected, he ain’t heavy at all. Well, he ain’t like a feather, but I can lift him easy onto the toilet.
“Thank you, darlin’,” Bobby say, when he on the toilet. He grab onto the sink to keep his balance.
He still got his pants on and I don’t know how he gone manage this. “You need me to help you pull your pants down?”
“Of course not,” Bobby say.
I nod and leave the bathroom, shutting the door and waiting outside. I hear Bobby grunting a bit, following by a loud crash. I come rushing back in and find Bobby on the floor, flat on his belly, his pants only halfway down. Oh, Lord. Why don’t the boy listen to me when I offer to pull down his pants for him?
“I gone get Miz Corliss,” I say.
“No!” Bobby yells. He trying to turn over, but it ain’t easy for him. “I’m fine. I’m really fine. I promise. Just help me up.”
Bobby, he finally get hisself flipped over, and he just lie there for a second, prop up on his elbows, breathing fast like he just done run a marathon. He look up at me with those blue, blue eyes, and I just don't know what to do. I know I best call Miz Corliss, but he won't be liking that.
“Maybe,” he say, “if you help me take my pants off first...”
I ain't in no position to argue. Bobby, he undo the button on his pants and I get a hold of them and pull them off what left of his legs. I gotta tell you, it's a shock to see Bobby's legs. They just two withered little nubs, covered in thick scars and looking right angry and red. Mama always taught me you don't ever stare, but it hard, I tell you.
Bobby don't say boo this time as he grab onto my shoulders and I pull him back up onto the toilet. But he gets it done this time, and I wait outside the whole time to help him back in the wheelchair and to get his pants back on. His voice get real low and quiet as he say, “Thank you, Rosie.”
Usually I get on home after I serve dinner to Miz Corliss at six, but I know without being told that I be staying late tonight. Bobby, at least, he his normal self again, laughing and joking around. Makes me feel better. I get worried when I see Bobby looking so sad.
I stay all through dinner and clear away the plates when they done. When I take Bobby’s plate, he say to me, “Rosie, your meatloaf is even better than your mother’s.”
I look away, trying not to let on how much his praise make me happy. Mama is one a the best cooks in town. “You better never say that to Mama,” I warn him.
“I ain’t stupid,” he say, a big ol’ sloppy grin on his face.
“Rosie,” Miz Corliss say to me as I pick up the last of the dishes. “What do you think about… staying over the night? You can have the guest bedroom.”
Miz Corliss, she really scared about taking care of Bobby. I know it cuz I once heard her tell Miz Jenkins down the block that her house is worth more since no coloreds never stayed here, but she still want me here. “If I’d a known,” I say. “I’d a brung my overnight bag, Miz Corliss. But I don’t have any clothes or—”
“Can’t you just wear the same rags you’re wearing now?” Miz Corliss snap at me. Her bright red painted lips are set in an angry little line.
“Mother, Rosie don’t need to spend the night,” Bobby say, looking cross. “We’ll be fine. Rosie, you go on home.”
I still ain’t sure who the boss of me is, so I just stand there, looking between the two of them, until Bobby say to me, “Git!”
Bobby though, he just bein’ nice. He want me to stay as much as his mama do. He don’t want to be handing no pee-jug to his mama to empty. I don’t want him to have to do that neither, but it make me smile just to imagine the look on Miz Corliss’s face.
The sun already be going down when I get myself outside and start off my walk to the bus. I don’t got a car and even if I did, I don’t know how to drive. It take me damn near thirty minute to make the walk to the bus stop, but I ain’t got no choice if I need to have work.
“Rosie! Hey, Rosie!”
That be Charlie, running to catch up with me. He huffing and puffing, waving his hand at me from down the block, just in case I be blind. When he catch up with me, he lean forward, breathing heavy. He got a sheen of sweat on his hairline. “I’s gone walk you to the bus stop, Rosie.”
“No need,” I say.
“I made a promise to your mama that I’d keep you safe,” Charlie say. “You want I should break a promise to your mama?”
“Mama know I can take care a myself,” I say.
I turn on my heel and start walking, but Charlie just fall into step beside me. He sure don’t listen. But I guess it ain’t so bad having him with me. As long as he don’t get any ideas that this mean I be sweet on him or nothing.
We get to the bus stop, and I turn to Charlie and say, “Thank you.”
“You is welcome,” Charlie say. He smile at me. His teeth is a little yellow, but pretty straight. He have a good smile, though not nearly as handsome as Bobby Corliss’s. “How about letting me take you to dinner, Rosie Jackson?”
I drop my eyes. “I just can’t, Charlie,” I say. “You is nice and all, but… I got a lot of work to do for Miz Corliss. She need a lot of help right now.”
Charlie get this angry look on his face. “You mean taking care of her crippled son?”
I stick out my chin. “Don’t call him that. Bobby Corliss is a good man.”
Charlie shake his head. “No, he ain’t. I thought you was smarter’n that, Rosie.”
“He is,” I say again, louder this time.
“Well, then,” Charlie say to me. “Maybe next time, Mr. Bobby Corliss can walk you to the dang bus stop.”
Charlie turn on his heel and march off down the street, madder than a wet hen. Bobby Corliss won’t never walk me to the bus stop. A white man, even one as nice as Bobby, don’t be escorting a colored girl to the bus stop. And anyways, Bobby can’t walk no more.
To be continued...